Annie Nilsson - Oct 26 2020

Cold water therapy - everything you need to know

Whilst most of us eagerly await a summer swim, when the temperatures drop and winter weather is in full swing, the last thing we want to do (well, most of us anyway) is take a dip in the icy water. 

But according to research, cold temperatures might actually come with a whole range of health benefits.

The practice of using cold water therapy, also known as hydrotherapy, utilises water around the 15°C mark to stimulate health benefits, and even help treat certain health conditions. While it's been around for a couple of millenia, today, it usually includes things like ice baths, cool showers, outdoor swims and cold water immersion therapy methods like cryotherapy.

According to experts, frequent exposure to cold has been linked to a number of different health benefits, from speeding up your metabolism to reducing inflammation, swelling and sore muscles. This can largely be attributed to the way cold temperatures constrict blood vessels, reducing blood flow to the area and dialling down the swelling and inflammation.

So, it makes sense that many athletes use ice baths and other types of cold exposure as a means to speed up recovery after a particularly challenging workout.

If you’re using cold water therapy to help with muscle recovery, for the best results be sure to combine with stretching and active recovery techniques. 

Cold body therapy has also been linked to improved quality of sleep, more focus and even an improved immune response, with evidence suggesting that cold water therapy can stimulate your body’s immune system - increasing your body’s resistance to stress and improving your ability to fight illness.

So, what about weight loss?

From fashion to fitness, influencers have touted the magical affects of cold water therapy when it comes to weight loss. 

Studies show that cold water therapy may help with weight loss, with cold water immersion speeding up your metabolic rate - the rate at which your body uses energy, and burns calories. Research has also shown that brown fats are activated by exposure to cold, producing heat to help maintain your body temperature, as well as regulating the white fat associated with conditions like heart disease and obesity.

Does that mean you’ll drop more weight if you take cold baths or showers? Science doesn't quite go that far.

Whilst anecdotal evidence supports this theory, more research is needed to determine the efficacy of cold water therapy in aiding weight loss. 

And mental health benefits?

Whilst it isn't a cure for any mental health condition, studies show that cold water swimming might help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Not only is daily exercise linked to improvements in mood, increased endorphins, and reduced stress, but cold water has also been shown to have similar effects.

A boost of this feel good hormone may help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as decreasing cortisol. 

If you want to test the benefits of cold water therapy for yourself, there are a range of different methods including cold showers, ocean swimming and ice baths.

Cold has a powerful effect on the human body, raising your blood pressure, heart rate and circulation. So, it’s important to consult with your healthcare professional if you have any concerns about your health.

It’s also important to note that your body temperature is likely to keep dropping even after you get out of the water, so warming up in the right way is oh so important in reducing risks of hypothermia.

The Outdoor Swimming Society recommends taking a few steps to warm up safely and gradually:

1. Get out of your wet clothes and dry off.
2. Dress in warm, dry layers, starting with your upper body.
3. Drink a warm beverage.
4. Have a bite to eat - bonus points for something sweet, since sugar elevates your body temperature.
5. Find a warm place to sit down or, if you feel up to it, walk around to raise your body temperature. 
6. Avoid taking a hot shower, the sudden change in blood flow could cause you to pass out.

The bottom line is, cold water therapy - whether it’s a quick swim in icy surf, a post-workout ice bath, or a brisk shower - can benefit your health in several ways, from reducing muscle soreness, boosting your immune system and metabolism to improving your mood.

But, it’s important to note that more research needs to be done to determine which of these benefits are supported by science.


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